My lightbulb moment: the day I understood that my body and my health were a reflection of my habits, and that in order to have a healthy body I needed to engage consistently, over time, in the behaviors that promoted health. The body needs certain conditions to be met in order to function optimally, most people ‘get’ this on a nutritional level. We understand nutritional deficiencies:
A Vitamin D deficiency leads to Rickets.
A Vitamin C deficiency leads to Scurvy.
A protein deficiency leads to Kwashiorkor.
A calorie deficiency leads to Marasmus.
A B12 deficiency leads to pernicious anemia.
Etcetera. We understand that these conditions are the result of fundamental needs not being met, and that the ‘cure’ is to meet that need. It’s not really a ‘cure’ though, it’s returning the body to homeostasis, the body’s natural state when the conditions for health are in place. We don’t further alter the diet or lifestyle to mitigate the symptoms of the deficiency. That would be silly. Lets consider what that might look like (cue dream-sequence harp music):
Imagine for a moment that you are dealing with the symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency. You’re experiencing bone and muscle pain, you’ve had a few bone fractures, and you’re developing multiple cavities. You find a blogger online who also has those symptoms, and that blogger has developed a novel new approach to addressing them: daily painkillers for the pain, using a scooter to get around to reduce the risk of falls (and subsequent fractures), and teeth removal to eliminate the cavity issue. Indeed, this approach seems to mitigate all of your symptoms! A miracle indeed! And no need to resort to pesky vitamin D supplements. Why supplement when you can simply take painkillers, pull out all your teeth, and use a scooter to get around? Deficiency be damned. You do some further investigation and discover that there’s a huge online community of people who’ve adopted this lifestyle to deal with their symptoms. Blogs, facebook pages, books, heck, there are even doctors who advocate this lifestyle! You fit right in. You join a few facebook groups, make some online friends, and settle in to your new lifestyle. There are even conferences and social gatherings where you can meet fellow ‘low-Ders’, exchange tips and stories, and generally receive affirmation and reinforcement for your lifestyle choices.
Of course this sounds absolutely absurd. But we do it all the time. Let me explain…
I had my lightbulb moment long before I’d heard of ‘evolutionary health’. At first, my understanding was nebulous and visceral. I sensed that I needed to create the conditions that my human body was adapted to in order to improve my health. You know, the way zoos try to recreate animals’ natural habitat in order to keep them healthy? You put a lion in a penguin habitat and pretty soon you’ve got a sick, or dead, lion. Well, I sensed that my ‘habitat’ and lifestyle wasn’t appropriate for my health. I was sick after all.
I began with simple logic. What conditions are humans adapted to? Remember, I hadn’t heard of evolutionary health yet. I was just thinking critically. What conditions were ubiquitous for our species as we evolved? I could only think of a few, as we’ve managed to thrive in so many different environments, and those few constants, as I saw them were:
High levels of physical activity.
I’ve since heard the speculation that primitive man’s life was largely sedentary, but this argument makes zero sense to me. Without technology to do the tasks of daily life, living is hard work, no matter how you slice it. Even the simple act of pooping requires physical exertion. Don’t believe me? Stop using a toilet to poop for a few months and see what happens to your thighs. Mmm-hmm. That’s right.
No, up until the last 50 years or so, when we started sitting down most of the time, life was hard work. Everywhere you went you walked, or later, rode a horse, but even that requires physical exertion. You carried things, you climbed things, you dug things up, you skinned animals, you chased prey (or ran from predators), you built shelters, you migrated to follow the seasons or the herds. And there was no TV or internet, so when you weren’t working your ass off in the pursuit of food and shelter, you DID stuff to keep yourself occupied. You danced, you played games, you made stuff with your bare hands, you explored. You never sat motionless for hours on end. That is a 20th century invention. Studies on modern-day hunter-gatherer societies show that even though their total energy expenditure is about the same as westerners, hunter-gatherers are significantly more physically active.
Our genome is evolutionarily adapted to high levels of physical activity. It just is. I hate to break it to you. Physical activity is a fundamental requirement for normal metabolic function, without adequate physical activity we develop insulin resistance and then a whole cascade of metabolic and endocrine dysfunction. I’m not pulling this out of my ass, or cherry picking data, by the way. The Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, the NIH and the NDIC and other reputable scientific organizations agree that inactivity is a primary driver of metabolic dysfunction. Attempting to treat the symptoms of insulin resistance with extreme dietary restrictions, which is what SO MANY in the fad diet, ‘real food’ and ‘ancestral health’ community (which at this point has completely jumped the shark) are trying to do, is like treating the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency with pain killers and teeth pulling. Pain killers and teeth pulling may help in the short term, but establishing healthy vitamin D levels is what is necessary to return the body to ‘normal’ function. The answer is not to tailor the diet to one’s activity level, the answer is to maintain the activity level that supports healthy metabolic function. Otherwise you are merely treating the symptoms of the deficiency. The physical activity deficiency.
Sunlight and sleep.
Variations in skin color are an indication that our genome is adapted to sun exposure. The more sun a geographic location gets, the darker the skin of the people who traditionally inhabited that area. We require sunlight to synthesize vitamin D (there’s my analogy, lol), an essential nutrient for health, which indicates, to me at least, that sunlight has been a ubiquitous condition during our evolution. Same with sleep, we can’t be healthy without it. Attempting to circumvent the health ramifications of sunlight or sleep deficiency by simply addressing the symptoms would be foolish. If you have a sunlight or sleep deficiency, the solution is simple and obvious, get some sleep or sunlight. Fortunately we can get vitamin D from food, an adaptation to living in geographic areas with less sun exposure I’m sure, but just try to hack sleep deficiency. Not happening. We require these things to be healthy, because we’ve evolved under these conditions.
Whole or minimally processed foods.
For the vast majority of human history we’ve eaten foods in the form nature provides to them, or very close. Until the last century, processing of food was minimal: cooking, grinding, fermenting, drying, etc. Only recently have we begun extracting, isolating fractionating, hydrolyzing, etc. Given enough time we could surely adapt to these processes (we are a highly adaptable species after all, a trait that accounts for our success), and in fact I think we can get away with eating some processed foods because we’re so adaptable (I do), but our bodies are adapted to absorbing and metabolizing nutrients in synergy with the other nutrients that occur together in whole foods, so eating mostly whole foods is probably best in the big picture.
That said, I’ve heard arguments that we’re evolutionarily adapted to specific macronutrient ratios, and I find this line of thinking completely ridiculous. Because we’ve found ways to thrive in almost every environment on earth, we’ve been able to adapt to the foods provided by those environments. The Inuits thrive on a diet of mostly fat, while the Kitavans thrive on a diet of mostly carbs. And somewhere on earth, you’ll find a culture that thrives on every macronutrient ration in between. We eat animals, we eat plants, we eat grains and legumes, we eat insects, we eat fungi, we eat crustaceans, we eat mollusks, we eat honey, we eat algae. And more. We like sweet things and we like fatty things. We’ve found ways to thrive on virtually anything the earth can provide. The common thread isn’t a macronutrient ratio, the common thread is whole, or minimally processed, foods.
Here’s where I get really philosophical. I believe that any given environment provides a finite amount of caloric energy to support the life that exists there. The variation in human size from individual to individual (and from culture to culture) suggests to me that different ‘strains’ of humans evolved symbiotically with their environment. Environments that provided more caloric energy produced larger humans, and vice-verse. A person’s energy needs are directly proportional to their size (and to a lesser extent their activity level, but BMR makes up the lion’s share of our daily energy expenditure, and BMR is in direct proportion to body weight). When we consistently, over time, consume more or less energy than our body requires, we develop metabolic dysfunction. Too much energy leads to excess adipose storage, and excess adipose produces inflammatory compounds, excess estrogen, and drives insulin resistance. Insufficient energy intake leads to thyroid and reproductive hormone imbalance, fatigue, depression and insomnia, bone and organ deterioration, and a whole host of other issues. We’ve strayed from our natural relationship with our environment and the energy it provides. We have unlimited calories available to us for the first time in human history, and some of us go to the opposite extreme and decide to restrict our intake below what is necessary to sustain health. When we had a more symbiotic relationship with our environment, our bodies adapted to the energy resources it provided. We’re all out of whack now. And energy balance DOES matter. Anyone who claims otherwise is selling a magic pill.
There you have it. My Go Kaleo Theory of Everything™. Re-create the conditions we’re adapted to if you want to support metabolic health (because metabolism is, after all, everything). When I started out on this path five years ago it was an instinctive sense that I needed to change my behaviors and lifestyle conditions to improve my health. Over the years I’ve done research that has consistently reinforced my original instinct, so that at this point I’ve fleshed out my ideas with facts and scientific data. Putting my ideas into practice in my own life WORKED, not only did I lose weight, but I reversed PCOS and several other nagging conditions. I’m five years in and have maintained my weight loss and health by maintaining health-promoting lifestyle behaviors. I am not perfect in any area, but I am consistent in all of them. Day by day, habit by habit, I focused on changing my behaviors, not on changing my body. And new behaviors produced better health.
The chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life.